President Donald Trump on Friday signed a $484 billion package to help small businesses, hospitals and first responders, as well as increase nationwide testing for the coronavirus.
Among the officials attending were Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin and head of SBA Jovita Carranza. Also present were GOP House leaders Reps. Liz Cheney, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was noticeably not present, according to pool reports, nor were any congressional Democrats.
“Great for small businesses, great for the workers,” Trump said, adding the measure would "extend relief to thousands of African-American and Hispanic American business owners.”
House lawmakers, many donning masks per CDC guidelines, some wearing gloves, returned to vote in person on this fourth stimulus measure Thursday afternoon.
Republicans insisted on the in-person vote, and many voiced concern Thursday that Congress was not yet back in session full-time, something currently scheduled for May 4.
The vote was 388-5, with one member, Independent Rep. Justin Amash voting "present." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was the lone Democrat to oppose the measure along with Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Georgia’s Jody Hice, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky.
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“Our nation faces a deadly virus, a battered economy with tens of thousands of sick and some died, millions out of work. This is really a very, very, very sad day,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, clad in all-white with a white scarf to cover her face, said somberly to the chamber. “We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted. The uncertainty of it all. We have to be very prayerful.”
Pelosi, calling the day historic, signed the measure almost immediately afterward as congressional leaders stood well over six feet apart.
With her scarf over her face, she could be heard saying, "We can't shake hands."
The nearly half-a-trillion dollar relief package will pump $310 billion back into the depleted small business loan program known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and it sets aside $120 billion for the smallest of businesses, gives $75 billion more to hospitals, and provides $25 billion for coronavirus testing.
Aside from the members’ use of personal protective devices Thursday, the actual vote was unusual due to pandemic social distancing concerns, with lawmakers - broken into at least eight different voting blocks - entering the chamber from a side door, voting at the back of the chamber over an extended period of time, and then promptly departing.
Podiums and microphones were wiped down after each representative spoke during the debate. The chamber was closed and thoroughly cleaned between the two votes of the day. And the number of lawmakers and staff permitted on the House floor at any given time was reduced, with the chamber doors left wide open, something rarely, if ever, done.
The rare bipartisan vote belied the frustration and anger voiced by lawmakers. Tempers flared at times.
Republicans blamed Democrats for what they saw as a partisan delay, since Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requested an emergency $250 billion infusion of funds for PPP one week ago as the program was running out of cash.
“To those 4.4 million Americans who were laid off this week, Congress owes you an apology,” said Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, adding of hard-hit small business owners, “They made a sacrifice, but they got sacrificed by politics last week. Shame on this body.”
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer fired back, accusing the minority of “blatant politics,” saying Republicans could have saved time by agreeing to what Democrats proposed weeks ago which is now part of the current, “far better” legislation.
“What did we get? A hundred and twenty additional billion (dollars) for small businesses. We all talk about being for the small business. What this does is put another $120 billion in addition to what was already approved,” said Rep. Hoyer, D-Md., who also touted the added money for first responders.
Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is at the epicenter of the outbreak, blasted Republicans, accusing them of being disingenuous.
“It is a joke when Republicans say they have urgency around this bill. The only folks that they have urgency around are folks like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Shake Shack. Those are the people getting assistance in this bill. You are not trying to fix this bill for mom and pops. And we have to fight to fund hospitals? Fighting to fund testing? That is what we’re fighting for in this bill. It is unconscionable, If you had urgency, you would legislate like rent was due on May 1st,” decried Ocasio-Cortez.
Both large restaurant chains were able to obtain multi-million dollar PPP loans in the first round of funding, taking advantage of a carve-out in the law allowing restaurants and hotels with locations containing fewer than 500 employees each to apply. The employee limit applies to all other small businesses who hope to obtain a loan under the program.
Shake Shack immediately repaid the loan in the face of a national uproar, and Ruth’s Chris announced Thursday that it would do the same in an expedited fashion.
Members, mostly Democrats, had hoped to vote remotely or via a proxy system, but Republicans objected, citing constitutional concerns, forcing members to return to Washington which is currently under a stay-at-home order. Leadership agreed to study a remote voting proposal by Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., over the next couple of weeks, after which a vote to change the House rules would be required.
“I have one question - where has Congress been? Forty three percent of American households have had a significant or total pay cut. Twenty six million have filed for unemployment. Schools are shut down. Hospitals are laying off doctors and nurses. Where has Congress been?” asked Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “No hearings, no oversight. Today, I am holding my nose and voting for a bill I had no chance to shape ... But this is it, Madame Speaker. Enough. No more half-ass legislating. No more picking winners and losers.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, echoed that sentiment and called on his colleagues to get back to work.
“We are asking our grocers to stock our shelves, truckers to drive, and nurses and doctors to risk their lives, but Congress can’t even bother to vote to help small businesses in time. In fact, many of them want to vote from home or by proxy,” Crenshaw said, adding, “If we are to survive this historic crisis, we might collectively stiffen our spines and demonstrate to the American people what that looks like.”
Poignant moments punctuated the day, lawmakers not spared the heartache of losing loved ones to the virus just as many of their constituents have.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., announced that her own family was hit hard by the virus.
“I'm going to take a moment to dedicate this legislation to my dear sister who is dying in a hospital in St Louis, Missouri, right now infected by the coronavirus,” Rep. Waters said.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., in the middle of her speech in support of the bill, said she just got a phone call saying she had “lost another dear friend to the virus."
And Rep Robin Kelly offered condolences to Sen. Elizabeth Warren who lost her own brother to COVID-19.
Democrats were already looking to the next stimulus legislation, saying the current bill was not enough. And informal talks were already underway across the Capitol.
“It does not go far enough,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., said of the legislation passed Thursday. “Our cities and our states need assistance now. They soon may have to lay off police and first responders, the very people we need on the frontlines in this crisis.”
Republicans, who have said taxpayers should not be on the hook for state and local debt incurred before the pandemic, blocked Democrats’ attempts to add billions in new funding for that purpose, though President Trump has made clear he wants the new funding in the next relief legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set off something of a political brushfire on Wednesday when he endorsed the notion of cash-strapped states filing for bankruptcy, agreeing that many states had put themselves into debt long before the coronavirus struck.
“We all have governors regardless of party who would love to have free money,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy code.”
“You raised yourself the important issue of what states have done, many of them have done to themselves with their pension programs,” McConnell continued. “There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations.”
Democratic and GOP politicians from New York, the epicenter of the virus’ outbreak, pounced.
GOP Rep. Pete King called the remarks “shameful and indefensible,” tweeting Wednesday, “McConnell’s dismissive remark that States devastated by Coronavirus should go bankrupt rather than get the federal assistance they need and deserve is shameful and indefensible. To say that it is ‘free money’ to provide funds for cops, firefighters and healthcare workers makes McConnell the Marie Antoinette of the Senate.”
“That is one of the saddest, really dumb comments of all time. Okay, let’s have all the states declare bankruptcy – that’s the way to bring the national economy back” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in an interview on WAMU.
And Pelosi joined in the chorus of criticism, admonishing the GOP leader, saying, “And what does Senator McConnell say - “I think the states should go bankrupt.” Oh really? And not pay the hospitals, first responders, and the rest - Oh really? What made you think that was a good idea? It’s just more notion-mongering to get attention I guess.”
The Senate GOP leader said Republicans would discuss the issue when Congress returns as early as May 4.
House members also jousted Thursday over whether or not to create a special select committee - with subpoena power - to oversee how pandemic stimulus funds are spent. Ultimately, the vote broke down along party lines to approve the creation of the panel 227 to 182.
For Republicans, the new committee was nothing more than another partisan attack on the president by Democrats who “hate” Trump and want to use the committee to help take him down during a pivotal presidential campaign year. They claimed that the greatest example of that was the selection of a top surrogate of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, as the new panel’s chairman.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top Trump ally, ran through a laundry list of oversight entities - a total of eight - already in place to police the massive $2 trillion in relief funds already appropriated by Congress with much more to come.
“The ninth is political. The ninth looking out for Joe Biden. The ninth to go after President Trump. This is just a continuation of the attack the Democrats have had on the President for the past four years. It started before he was President,” accused Jordan.
But Pelosi disagreed, noting the past creation by Republicans of special committees, like the one to probe the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans and U.S. nationals were killed.
“It’s very important to the American people to have confidence as they make their sacrifices that our taxpayer dollars that they pay are not being squandered,” Pelosi responded, adding, “We need a select committee whose focus, whose purpose is to address the challenge that the coronavirus places on us.”